Friday, 31 August 2007

The National Portrait Gallery – Non-Class Visit 3 –

One of the museums I’ve always missed and regretted missing on my many trips through London is the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve taken courses focusing on portraiture conventions and so was looking to see some of both famous British persons and the work of famous British portrait painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. And perhaps interpreting some of the conventions in person; it’s very striking to see work in person that you’ve only seen as a projected slide, there’s usually a great difference of size and the NPG was no exception.

The lower floor was dedicated to current figures and had a wide variety of types of portraits including a charcoal drawing of JK Rowling and the four members of Blur in a comic fashion as pastel line drawings, which was way larger than the cd covers for Blur’s Greatest Hits it has been endlessly reproduced on.

On the second floor were many portraits I recognized, including a very poignant sculpture of Victoria and Albert (of course Victoria is responsible for establishing the original form of the NPG, the “British Historical Portrait Gallery” in 1856) and the original Bramwell Bronte painting of his sisters Charlotte, Anne, and Emily that he painted himself out of. I visited Howarth and the Bronte family home back in 2005, fully thinking that the version of the painting they had on display was real, but once I looked closely at the NPG’s it was very apparent that the creases in the canvas from when Bramwell folded it up and stuck it away were the real, cracked creases of canvas. The room had another portrait of Emily that also was the real version of one on display at the Bronte’s home in Howarth, I’m very glad I actually got to see the real ones, I do not recall any little plaques explaining that the ones on display at the home were actually in the NPG, but sometimes exhibits are misleading.

The NPG also has a large collection of Tudor portraits, including several Holbeins (Hans Holbein is the painter responsible for the main image that the public have seen of Henry VIII, the monumental hands on hips portrait). One of the rooms had portraits of Anne of Cleves and Anne Boleyn as well as very young portraits of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I as a princess. Elizabeth I’s main courtiers, or at least the ones extensively covered by the film Elizabeth and therefore the ones I remember best, were also well represented, including Walsingham and Robert Dudley, it was quite funny to see sometimes the difference between the way films like Elizabeth are costumed and the way the Lords really wore their facial hair.

The NPG really is the sort of collection that it’s impossible to see all at once, with rooms devoted to explorers, scientists, authors, and other British luminaries, and it’s never all on display, for instance Paul was available in Beatle portrait form, but John was not. The NPG also has revolving exhibits such as the current one of photographs from Fleet Street papers throughout the years and the current winners of the British Portraiture Award for 2007.

Guildhall Library

The Guildhall Library is located within the square mile that makes up the actual City of London and, accordingly, is a public library devoted to London materials including books, newspapers, and a print and art collection (some of which was on display, prints illustrating Cheapside from various eras). The library is similar to a national archive in that it holds collections such as that of the London Stock Exchange and Lloyds of London (the famous insurance company and now bank as well); the library also has family histories, Parliament materials, and English history all important in chronicling the history of London. It gets its name from its collections retained from several guilds including the Clock and Watch Makers Guild (the collection also includes materials from the guilds such as clocks). The arts collection of the Guildhall Library also has a very useful database called COLLAGE that provides images from their collection as well as a way to purchase those images, making art more available for the masses and providing details about the works the Guildhall houses; I was very pleased to see that their collection included some Hogarth engravings I had previously studied, the Beer Street and Gin Lane prints as well as having one of his prints on display in the Cheapside exhibit.

The library has moved through four different buildings since its beginnings in the 1420s, and survived a rather greedy snatch by the Duke of Somerset, he wanted a library, Guildhall had a library, he decided to take it. The collection retains one Bible that was in the original set of materials, but thankfully their collection has grown back up over time, despite more recent collection losses occurring during World War II in the Blitz that bombed out quite a large chunk of London. Currently the Guildhall Library is a public lending library, although its collections lead me to thinking that it wasn’t, a collection devoted to the city of London just sounded reference only but happily that’s not the case for those who need to do research and don’t have time to explain why or provide lots of identification such as traveling students.

Barbican Centre Library

The Barbican Library is a public library serving the Barbican Centre, multiple floors of art, music, and film with galleries, exhibition spaces, a concert hall and a greater space with residences and a café. It is very much a self-contained unit of art appreciation and so the library must reflect that within its collections, devoting large spaces to art and music.

One of the collections of great interest to me was the music collection. At the start of our lecture I noticed that our guide was standing in front of shelves of music-related dvds that I greatly wanted to peruse and very much appreciated seeing in a library; of course I also learned that because of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act they charge to take away dvds and cds because those were not specifically included in the text as being types of items required to be used free of charge. The music library has 17,000 cds as well and scores available for checkout – or that one can test on the library’s silent piano (a user can checkout headphones and then have a play).

The music library’s cd collection has its own classification system, with categories such as Classical, Pop Female, and Pop Group; the scores have their own system as well, titled the Malcolm and Reeves system so that pertinent scores could be grouped together, and as all the books in the library are, the music library’s books are classified under the tried and true of the public library system, Dewey.

The arts reading room is the other part of the library mainly devoted to the same pursuits the Barbican Centre makes available and just as in the NAL, I noticed a lot of familiar reading material. The library also had an exhibit of prints up, which reminded me of the Iowa City Public Library’s prints and paintings available for checkout, although the Barbican’s were for sale.

The Barbican Library also has one of the largest children’s collections in London with about 25,000 items. The children’s library also holds many events like story time and has previously held cooking events although that seems like not the greatest idea perhaps for an enclosed, carpeted space with running children.

The library also houses many familiar public library services such as free internet usage and courses in life skills such as technology use and literacy; and a self checkout, which I hadn’t seen yet on our jaunts through the libraries. Of course, the academic libraries we’d seen would probably become very frightened by the idea of a self checkout since no one can really check anything out of them anyway.

National Art Library

The highlight of any library trip for me will always be an art library. Having worked in one as well as being an artist and an art history student collections including art books and treasures corresponding to the world of art are always going to be very close to me. And I am quite pleased with England for having established something as useful as a National Art Library to keep and preserve and make available for use materials to new artists and those studying art and design.

I did research in the NAL before our group had their tour there, so it was quite a treat to see behind the scenes of what I’d used. I have to say that the stacks were the highlight for me as I encountered quite a few books I’ve shelved before and that I miss seeing on a daily basis. One other aspect of the stacks that I particularly appreciated was that the NAL has a classmark specifically for publications of their museum, the Victoria and Albert, which includes a lot of important exhibition catalogues and records of materials held by the museum and the library. Of course it is necessary for the museum’s publications to have their own classmark as the NAL is responsible for keeping the materials needed by the curatorial staff and any archival materials associated with the museum.

Beyond the stacks and the main rooms of the NAL where readers sit and books are distributed, our group was shown items out of the NAL’s collection of artists’ books and bindings. The NAL is also known for being an archival center for aspects of the book, such as design, fine bindings, etc. Highlights of that included a clever pop-up book of bookshelves called, not shockingly, Empty Bookshelves, an artists’ journal that was extremely colorful and embellished as well as being readable and relatable while she was complaining about a job she had to leave, and one of my favorites being a bit of a typography geek, a society lady’s scrapbook where for each location she drew the place names in very different fonts with ink and sometimes included details such as Art Nouveau leaves and vines, although as a society lady she most likely had a lot of time to put into things like that it was very impressive and looked as though she’d rarely messed up and gone back over her lettering.

Writer’s Museum of Edinburgh

The Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh was very much devoted to three important Scottish authors and had only minimal representation of any current Scottish authors. Of course the one with the most set up and devotion was Sir Walter Scott. It seems reasonable as he is responsible for preserving the Highland heritage – landscape, way of speaking, other behaviors, and putting the history out in a manner that isn’t as dry as an academic tome. I have read Rob Roy, and I didn’t entirely understand it, but from a writer’s perspective, many writers write to represent what they see lacking and certainly I could recognize the importance of that kind of preservation. I see the same thing happening with present day Scottish writer Irvine Welsh’s novels, and have a similar kind of ‘work through the dialogue’ period when reading his work as I did with Rob Roy.

Robert Louis Stevenson is very annoying from a writer’s perspective however, in the museum I learned that he was first published at 16, which made me jealous, as well as that whole writing novels that stand the test of time and are really quite treasured by many people and well adventuresome. I was not however, jealous when I saw that he was also nicknamed ‘Smout,’ that one a young writer could live without.

The last of the top three Scottish writers covered by the museum was Robert Burns, who previously I only associated with addressing the haggis and being possibly of the Romantic period of literature that I generally despise. However, I learned that he’s also responsible for timely phrases like ‘O what is death but parting breath’ and ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ which to me have always been impressive bits of poems. The museum also had a cast of part of his skull which was an unusual display item when compared with the diorama of Sir Walter Scott’s sitting room and all the photographs of Robert Louis Stevenson.

National Archives of Scotland

The National Archives of Scotland are a valued destination for anyone wishing to trace their family history through Scotland. As a Scottish Smith, I was wondering how complicated it would be to find out what that side of my family’s last name was before they altered it to Smith. I know it was altered because a literature class I took at the U of Iowa informed me that during the Jacobite revolutions in Scotland, many Scottish families changed their last names to Smith (previously there weren’t any Scottish Smiths, although that seems unlikely as it’s third in the list of widely held last names) after Scotland lost, one assumes this was to fit in and I personally don’t really approve of that decision, it seems less than patriotic, but maybe it was to be sneaky. The archive currently has three buildings – the General Register House, the West Register House, and the Thomas Thomson House (which is running out of storage despite opening latest in 1995) and hold records of vast types of transactions like church records, parliament papers, wills, families’ holdings, tax records, and more. It is no surprise that they are running out of storage space and looking to build another site.

During our lecture on the archives we were shown materials from their collection including a handwritten cookbook with a lard-riddled recipe for puff pastry (typical but hard to imagine cooking today directly with lard), a document with one of the first mentions of being paid for something with whiskey from 1494, a poem that apparently school children still learn today about the British Rail system that had some vitally true lines, and a letter from Mary Queen of Scots to her mother, which was just lovely as I used to have a set of queen paper dolls that included her and so far she’s the only one of those whose signature I have now seen.

National Library of Scotland

The National Library of Scotland is housed in the city centre of Edinburgh and is home to the John Murray Archive, which was the main focal point of our lectures about the library. John Murray was involved in publishing over several generations and the family sold his archive of manuscripts, letters, books, and equipment to the National Library.

The John Murray Archive has some serious importance and significance to the world of books and the world in general as it contains works and items from authors and thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen. Because of the importance and because there are so many relatively boring displays of important textual materials in existence already, the library wanted to take a different approach on exhibiting pieces of the collection. The exhibit now involves all the important things about exhibiting text, like actual pieces of text and low lighting to decrease damage possibilities, and explanations of what the viewer is looking at these exhibits bring the people and the text together with replications of artifacts and interactive screens where one can magnify the text of letters and manuscripts, and read small blurbs about the objects, as well as compare their own height with that of an author as the disembodied clothing of the authors hangs at their height inside the case. The idea was to bring the world that John Murray experienced in publishing to ‘life’ but of course that’s not directly possible and the disembodied version was very amusing and exciting.

One of the things I found most entertaining at the exhibit was an interactive table where one could go through the process of publishing. Picking from several words based on titles published by Murray, a group and I created the ‘The Tortoise Twins Murder Journey of Love’ and then picked a cover, a genre, and who to market it to; then the table informed us that it was destined to be a cult classic. My only complaint about that little game is that it did not include the real life part of publishing where once you finish writing a book and it gets accepted into a publishing house, you have to wait a year for it to come out. I was expecting the machine to ask us to come back a year later and see how we did.

Ashmolean Museum – Non-Class Visit 2 –

The Ashmolean was a bit of a surprise for me on the first trip our class made to Oxford. I had seen the name on enough books and pamphlets and catalogues when I worked in the art library to remember it but I’d never found out where it was. The same thing has happened to me before in Texas when I saw the Amon Carter and it turned out to have my all time favorite Grant Wood painting in its collections, the Ashmolean proved to have similar important and rather exciting objects in its collection.

The main exhibition spaces on the ground floor were made up of Roman art and chunks of friezes and statues collected by a fellow named Arundel, for me it was another reminder of how many things the British stole while on their whirlwind conquering and colonizing tours, and that feeling continued to appear while I looked through the Egyptian collections. The museum has a ridiculously impressive collection of pendants, there were hundreds of them in many shapes of gods and goddesses but also forms that reminded me of milagros from Mexico, hands and feet and eyes, but all in blue stones. The Egyptian collection was also headed off by a sampling of objects from pre-Dynastic Egypt aka prehistoric artifacts, such as flakes and bifaces and burial objects, someone’s hair, and statues that pre-date the ideas of the Egyptian gods and goddesses most people are familiar with; these were most interesting for me as I’m very interested in prehistory and most of what I’ve ever heard about Egypt is all from Dynastic periods.

Anyway, the part of the collection that I’m most happy I saw and that was very surprising involved an exhibit labeled ‘Treasures.’ Inside were a pottery shard with a painting of a Greek or Etruscan boy on it that I know is on the cover of a book I shelved in the art library and Ghandaran and Gupta period Buddhist art (it’s always nice to look at the halo behind a Buddha sculpture, guess which period it’s from and be right). There were two objects that were particularly amusing to me though, the lantern taken from Guy Fawkes when he was arrested for trying to burn down Parliament, it wasn’t very imposing considering it nearly destroyed a government, and Powhatan’s mantle which of course is an invaluable American historical artifact, I was kind of wondering how it ended up in England as I don’t recall Powhatan being particularly fond of the English, I mean, Pocahontas didn’t really have that great of an argument for hanging with John Smith and he left her anyway, she probably should have listened to Powhatan.

Many parts of the collection featuring paintings weren’t available to see because of the Ashmolean’s renovations, which gave me the impression that I was looking at Oxford’s version of the Victoria and Albert Museum as a lot of the collection was furniture, instruments, silver, and other objects associated more so with design than fine art.

The Bodleian Library at Oxford

The Bodleian Library at Oxford is definitely one of the most picturesque libraries I’ve seen, it’s almost like the library is a mock up of what a library should be, dark wood, gilded spines, etc. etc. The library is made up of four buildings – the old and new Bodleian libraries, the Radcliffe Camera, and the Clareadon Building, although our guide mentioned at the end of the tour that the pub across the street is actually the unofficial fifth building.

Our tour ran through the Old Bodleian, which contained the Divinity School where students used to have public oral examinations and the Convocation Hall which looks exactly like a classroom from Harry Potter and happens to be where Parliament met during a few trying times for England like the Great Fire and the English Civil War. Upstairs was Duke Humfrey’s Library, Humfrey donated his collection of books to the Bodleian essentially forming the first major portion of the collection and they were kept chained to stands and basically unorganized. Today that part of the library has reader desks and the books are shelved spine-in and alarmed so that no one but the librarians can remove them. I am a big fan of the reference only, no touching aspects of the academic and reference libraries we have seen so far, it just seems like it would be so much easier to properly maintain out of print and rare and soon to be out of print and rare books that way. England and I agree about access issues.

The Radcliffe Camera, a round reading room and the second building on our tour connected to the New Bodleian by an underground tunnel which would be very useful during the rainy days, Oxford didn’t have a lot of covered walkways like Lancaster does, but perhaps there were more underground passages. In the New Bodleian we were shown their conveyor system to carry the books to their destinations on various floors of the library where they’ve been ordered to, including the mysterious J floor that apparently houses lots of important and secret and possibly fragile books and manuscripts. Later we saw the door to the J floor and I really wanted to see what was inside. Our guide also perused some newspapers with us in the stacks and I was quite happy to see something as familiar as compact shelving and dusty bound journals and to inform him that Buxton was in the Peak District while we were looking at the Buxton Herald.

Wellcome Collection – Non-Class Visit 1 –

One of the main things I like about London is that something new always pops up. I’ve been to most of the historical tourist spots at least once, and so was at a bit of a loss as to where else I wanted to visit or re-visit and write about, when a poster with a vivisected neck popped out at me in Piccadilly Circus tube station. It was advertising the Wellcome Collection, located across the street from Euston Station, which despite having been in Euston Station many, many times coming and going to and from Lancaster, I had never noticed.

The Wellcome Trust and Collection was composed of three exhibits and a library, a specialized medical library that is. The ‘Wellcome’ of the name corresponds to Henry Wellcome, an American who came to England with a partner and the intention of setting up a research facility for studying medical issues (he and partner also ran a pharmaceutical company). One of the exhibits, titled ‘Medicine Man,’ held pieces from his collection including a case full of different prosthetic limbs, Napoleon’s toothbrush (I never really considered when brushing teeth became en vogue, or pictured Napoleon brushing, so that was odd), a mummy from Peru, and many other objects that made me wonder just exactly when those sorts of things were just available for sale from Asia, Africa, and South America.

The other specifically medical exhibit involved artists’ interpretations of modern problems like malaria, obesity, and exploring genetics. There were sculptures, paintings, and installations like a wall of pills that was very Damien Hirst-like, a giant amorphous blob with legs and no head and very lifelike skin, and a four foot tall jelly baby that was slightly more creepy than the blob.

My favorite exhibit was the one about ‘The Heart,’ it contained real dried hearts of people and animals, illustrations of previous time periods’ conceptions of what the heart was and what it did, music, videos, and art such as Andy Warhol’s heart screenprint and a box made for love letters from Spain. There was a lot of red and a lot of artists I’m very fond of represented so in many ways it was a surprise. One of the more shocking and interesting objects was a table made for medical students to learn about the circulatory system that had an actual circulatory system varnished into it, veins on one side and arteries on the other.

Once Mandy and I visited all of the exhibits we headed up to the library and thankfully, were allowed to poke around. It followed a similar format to most of the libraries we’d visited, being reference only and patronage involving becoming a reader. I was well impressed by both the space – which had lovely medically related paintings covering the walls- and the subject classification scheme as various diseases had their own sections, for instance Plague had its own shelfmark.